“Come to Aketar and be transformed.”
That is what the myths say, the line spoken in a dozen languages across the continent. It is in their scriptures, their songs round the cookfires, their tablets in bronze. They all come to seek their promised land.
This is where I come in. They call me the Dead Desert, the Barrier to Heaven, the Sands Relentless. I oblige them, decorating myself with their bones.
Beyond me, they say, Aketar sits. Their voices carry on my winds. “Green fields and endless harvests.” “No, waterfalls that climb upward.” “No, clouds soft as down, firm enough to walk on.” “No, castles in the sky, hung in the air from a roof of stars.”
They are all incorrect.
Exhaustion kills most of them. From my borders, one can walk for three days and three nights and see naught but my skin, orange dunes rising and falling.
Heat stroke does its number, too, sunlight beating down only to give way to frostbite at night, when I turn near blue in the moon’s gloam.
For three hundred years, this was enough. But no amount of bones strung up on cacti dissuade them from marching into me. Then their adventurers quested with wagon trains pulled by camels and oxen. So I rent my own flesh for sinkholes, gobbling convoys whole. Mirages of palm trees and oases addle the survivors, turning them back the way they came.
For those smart enough to dowse for water, to find my blood pumping underground, they choke on my subterranean poison.
For two hundred years, that was enough. Then they came with water on their sand sleds, using my harsh winds against me. Their sailships darted across me, passing right over the bones I had laid out so perfectly.
This couldn’t be allowed. I erupted my fumaroles, blasts of lava and sulfuric gas flipping their tiny wooden ships, burning bonfires mixing with my green smoke. Fresh testaments to how far my desert goes, how vast I am.
But they did not take the plumes as failure, but as progress. One hundred years more, and they came with iron bottomed sailers, gasmasks and water filtration to pull moisture from the air. They were so close to my edge, I tore myself asunder, a great tremor, a rip in the earth making an impassable canyon.
Fifty years, and they come to the canyon’s edge, bringing great beams to construct a bridge, sending surveyors into my depths to create supports. I drop rocks, shift the wind to push them from on high, slake my bloodlust on their rotting bodies at the bottom of my canyon throat. The more I kill, the more come, and come, and build, replacing my skin with theirs, sand giving way to their lead roads.
Soon they’ll reach my edge and come to the ocean beyond. It is nothing special, not alive like I am. When they do, perhaps I can rest. Perhaps then, they’ll realize my name is Aketar, and I fulfilled their promise.
Or perhaps they’ll reach the sea and sail onward. Always seeking, always finding.
David Marino is a New York City CPA by day and a fantasy novelist by night. He is currently attending Sarah Lawrence’s Creative Writing MFA program.